The Monstrous Timelessness of Warcraft 3

The greatest heel-turn in strategy game history.

Rob Zacny

screenshots courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment

Last week’s Warcraft 3 Invitational was an odd event. It was heartening to see Blizzard put some attention on the fifteen year-old game—especially with the news that the new 1.29 patch is the start of a renewed focus on the game—but it was also slightly confusing for people who expected to see that patch put the context of a clear roadmap for the game’s future.

Instead, the exhibition tournament had the feeling of a class reunion, with old and new Warcraft 3 pros catching-up and basically letting each other and their community know that they’re still around, and still passionate about the game. Which was fun, if perhaps a bit too laid-back for an event meant to showcase how exciting Warcraft 3 was and still is. More importantly, it just wasn’t the announcement of a remastered Warcraft 3 that a lot of viewers wanted and even expected.

Warcraft 3 remains far more than a vessel for nostalgia, or an object of historical interest. In many ways it’s a masterpiece derived from a moment that can never be recreated. Because Warcraft 3 not only set the stage for World of Warcraft, a game whose success would completely transform Blizzard, but radically altered the strategy game landscape and perhaps signaled the beginning-of-the-end for the RTS as a major mainstream genre.

When it released in 2002, Warcraft 3 sharply departed from the kind of RTS designs that Blizzard had developed from Warcraft through Brood War, placing heroes at the center of each faction’s army—each of whom developed like an RPG character over the course of battle. Where Warcraft 2 and StarCraft had armies of disposable clones, Warcraft 3 armies featured superhero-level wizards and champions who could turn the tide of a whole battle if they were controlled wisely.

Those characters could also spawn an entire new genre of game, as it turns out. While the foundations of the MOBA genre predate Warcraft 3’s innovations, they directly inspired the Defense of the Ancients mod that forms the backbone of a lot of the MOBA genre. Ironically, that genre would end up replacing the RTS in a lot of ways, and practically relegate the genre that spawned it to a niche pastime.

But Warcraft 3’s historical significance isn’t why people love it, talk about it, and flip metaphorical tables when it is not given the Remastered HD Collector’s Special Edition treatment. It’s also one of the all-time great single-player campaigns in history. Where the earlier Blizzard games told their stories via cutscenes and in-game dialogue to which you were just a spectator, Warcraft 3 had most of its key events unfold inside of the missions themselves, and found ways of forcing the player to participate in them. It was a game in which your original hero lost his soul and, by the time you finished playing his story, you might feel like you’d traded a piece of yours as well.

Which brings us to “The Culling of Stratholme”—which I think my editor is finally going to let me talk about.

The opening of Warcraft 3’s campaign covers Arthas, the young Prince of Lordaeron, trying to stave-off a fantasy zombie apocalypse: In the backwaters and countryside of the human kingdom, someone is poisoning villagers and turning them into the undead. You play as Arthas as he and his allies race to try and uncover what is the cause of this Undead Plague, and head it off before it becomes catastrophic.

Each mission is more frantic and desperate than the last, as you try and keep from being overrun while also managing to achieve different objectives before a timer runs out. But at least the lines are clear: You’re the good guy, a prince and a paladin doing his best to save his kingdom in spite of its complacency and skepticism.

“The Culling” is where that narrative goes off the rails. Arthas arrives at a major city, attempting to stop the delivery of the tainted food that is spreading the plague. He finds his friend Jaina and mentor Uther waiting for him and, as he explains what is happening, he realizes that the plague has already hit the city. In order to keep the plague from spreading further, he says, they have to purge the city and exterminate its infected population before they all turn.

Jaina and Uther are both horrified. Uther grants that Arthas may be right about what is happening, but his solution of killing-off a city of his own subjects is monstrous. In response, Arthas turns on his mentor, relieving Uther of his duties and proceeding with the purge. He asks Jaina to help him but she refuses, saying, “I can’t watch you do this.”

And then you’re into the mission: It’s another race against time. As the civilians turn into zombies, they become enemy units that will fight back and damage your troops. You have to kill 100 infected or undead before the end of the mission, while an enemy hero prowls the city trying to claim the undead for his own forces.

Screenshot of a pivotal moment for Arthas, taken from video embedded below by "xLetalis" on Youtube

Even though the cutscene at the start of the mission signals that Arthas’ actions are making him a stranger to his lifelong friends and allies, the structure of the mission itself urges you to sweep aside those misgivings and focus on the mechanical task at hand.

The brutal ends-over-means logic that Arthas has embraced here is revealed at length over the course of the mission. For instance, the infected civilians are all hiding in their homes, so even before you can kill the infected, your army must first surround and rip-down someone’s house. Then, because civilians are neutral non-combatants, your soldiers will not automatically engage them until they turn and become zombies.

But it’s far easier to kill them if you get them before they turn, and so every kill becomes an act of willful murder as you use your “force attack” command to compel your soldiers to attack each individual civilian against their own AI’s inclination. This isn’t war, it’s slaughter for which you and your character are personally responsible.

Later in the story, there are other moments where Arthas well and truly damns himself. But this one mission represents a turning point. Because even as his actions are meant to serve a greater good—and as monstrous as they may have been, they might have been the best options in an impossible situation—there is something about Arthas’ quickness to resort to slaughter and authoritarianism that makes the entire sequence seem like the moment he set his bridges to burning.

It’s not just that he is forced to choose between an awful set of options, but that he does so without a moment’s hesitation, regret, or compassion. What we learn in this level is not just that Arthas can make ruthless decisions, but that on some level he exults in his capacity to be ruthless.

As for us, his executioners? Would we be the sort of people to know when to stop, or at least pause, before committing ourselves irrevocably to violence and brutality? “The Culling of Stratholme” leaves you wondering about that. With the urgency implied by a timed objective, it’s easy to focus on the procedural difficulty of murdering a city’s worth of civilians. Suddenly, you’re swept-up in the action of the mission without pondering its real implications until the deed is already done.

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As players we’re positioned to sympathize with Arthas, and to view the arc of his story as a tragedy in which a “good man goes bad.” But “The Culling of Stratholme” with its opening exchanges and the images of armed soldiers pulling down houses to slaughter the people cowering inside, raises questions about how far Arthas really fell, and whether there wasn’t always some part of him that was eager to cast aside conscience for expedience, if only to show that he could.

Amidst all Warcraft 3’s other achievements, it remains an unusual game because it is so very skeptical of the prowess and skill its mechanics are meant to celebrate. Its story is riddled with characters who confuse their abilities with virtue, where every power fantasy is poisonous as soon as it is indulged. Warcraft 3 is still a great strategy game, but its campaign is what make it an essential one, and why I hope a remastered edition eventually gives more people a reason to play it.

But in the meantime, it’s just $10 on Battle.net and Blizzard are patching it again. A remaster might be nice, but on balance, we have it pretty good right now.